SANTA CLARA — Derek Carrier's decisions to attend a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and drop basketball for football paid off when he earned a spot on the San Francisco 49ers this season after spending most of the last two years on NFL practice squads.
Now he could get the biggest chance of his career.
With leading tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald nursing injuries, Carrier is expected to play a heavy dose of snaps when the 49ers (1-1) visit the Arizona Cardinals (2-0) on Sunday. Carrier caught his first three passes for 41 yards in San Francisco's 28-20 loss to the Chicago Bears last week after Davis and McDonald went down.
“He plays fearless,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He goes out, he's going to give you everything he has and he's willing to go and make a play.”
Carrier's career has come quite a long way.
He played football and basketball in his first two years at Beloit College, a liberal arts school in Wisconsin. He chose to focus on football his final two years, went undrafted and spent part of 2012 on the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad before playing two games with the 49ers late last season.
Carrier said he went with football over basketball because it was a better fit. By his junior year, he said he was a small forward playing at 225 pounds.
“I probably outweighed everyone on the court by 30 pounds,” said Carrier, who is 6-foot-4 and about 250 pounds now.
Carrier's time on the hardwood wasn't a total loss, though. He said his basketball experience helped hone his footwork and hand-eye coordination, which are valuable traits as a blocker and pass catcher in the NFL.
“I think the basketball aspect deals more with just general athleticism,” Carrier said. “I think a lot of the moves you have in basketball are similar, posting up, being able to move with your feet and your hands, it translates on the football field.”
Carrier turned down an offer to be a preferred walk-on at Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin for Beloit because he didn't want to wait two or three years to play â€” and he wasn't thinking about an NFL career back then, anyway.
Carrier started all four years at Beloit, setting school records for receptions (189), yards (3,111) and touchdowns (29). But it still wasn't enough to get drafted, especially from a Division III school.
He worked his way up from the practice squad, first with the Eagles and then the 49ers. He finally got a chance last November â€” albeit a much smaller one â€” when backup tight end Garrett Celek was out with a hamstring injury.
Carrier should get more time this Sunday, but he said he's approaching this week like any other.
“I just try to focus individually on what I need to do to help the team win on Sunday. I just go out there and execute and do the best I can,” he said.
Davis is nursing a left ankle injury that had him on crutches Wednesday and walking with an exaggerated limp in front of reporters in the locker room Thursday. McDonald missed practice for the second straight day because of an injured knee.
How much Carrier plays is still unclear, too.
“I think he's very well-respected around here,” Kaepernick said. “Everyone has noticed and has seen what he's done and the work he's put in. So, it's great to see him go out and make plays and contribute.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called Carrier an “ascending player” on the roster and said he has improved as a blocker, which was his biggest hurdle to clear as a former wide receiver facing smaller cornerbacks on the outside. Coach Jim Harbaugh has credited Carrier for taking advantage of his opportunities when called upon.
“He understands his role, his ability and now getting the experience to go out and do it,” Harbaugh said. “He's done several times, and he's gotten better and better and better. I think that's been probably the most positive thing is the improvement he makes every time that he steps on the field.”
NOTES: RT Anthony Davis worked out on a side field and is likely to miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury. … CB Tramaine Brock (toe) also was among those who did not practice.